Steinmetz on colonialism

George Steinmetz offers a comparative sociology of colonialism in The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa.  More specifically, he wants to explain differences in the implementation of “native policy” within German colonial regimes around the turn of the twentieth century.  He finds that there are significant differences across three major instances of German colonialism (Samoa, Qingdao, Southwest Africa), and he wants to know why. (For example, the Namibia regime was much more violent than the Samoa or Qingdao examples.) This is a causal question, and Steinmetz is one of the most talented sociologists of his cohort in American sociology. So it is worth looking at his reasoning in detail.

One reason this is interesting to me is that it seems to represent a hard case for the perspective of analytical sociology (linklink), with its goal of providing an overarching model of all valid sociological explanations. On its face, Steinmetz’s analysis doesn’t look much like Coleman’s boat — identify a macro pattern of interest, look for the actors whose behavior gives rise to the pattern, and try to identify individual-level circumstances that cause the pattern through the individuals’ actions.  So let’s look in a little bit of detail at the explanations that Steinmetz offers.

Here are the guiding research goals for Steinmetz’s study.

Social theorists have often treated colonialism as a monolithic object, a uniform condition. Yet even a cursory overview of the historical literature indicates that colonialism is actually an extremely capacious category, encompassing everything from pillage and massacre in the Spanish conquest of the New World to the peaceful coexistence between British rulers and Chinese subjects in late colonial Hong Kong. The colonies that made up the German overseas empire, which lasted from 1884 until the end of World War I, exemplify the enormous variability even within the more delimited category of modern colonialism. This specifically modern variant of European colonialism, as opposed to the early modern (or earlier) forms, is my focus in this book.  I have selected three colonies to illustrate the wide spectrum of colonial native policy, which I will argue below, was the core activity of the modern colonial state.  These colonies are German Southwest Africa, forerunner of modern-day Namibia; German Samoa, precursor of the contemporary nation-state of Samoa; and Kiaochow, a colony that consisted of the city of Qingdao and its surrounding hinterland in China’s Shandong Province. (1)

What I try to account for in this book — my “explanandum” — is colonial native policy. Four determining structures or causal mechanisms were especially important in each of these colonies: (1) precolonial ethnographic discourses or representations, (2) symbolic competition among colonial officials for recognition of their superior ethnographic acuity, (3) colonizers’ cross-identification with imagos of the colonized, and (4) responses by the colonized, including resistance, collaboration, and everything in between.  Two other mechanisms influenced colonial native policy to varying degrees: [5] “economic” dynamics related to capitalist profit seeking (plantation agriculture, mining, trade, and smaller-scale forms of business) and [6] the “political pressures generated by the international system of states. (2)

This book does not attempt to identify any singular, general model of colonial rule.  Indeed, general theory and general laws are widely recognized as implausible goals in the social sciences.  Historians have always preferred complex, overdetermined, conjunctural accounts, but sociologists and some other social scientists have been reluctant to abandon the chimerical goals of parsimony and “general theory.” Rather than attempt to use colonial comparisons to fabricate a uniform model of the colonial state, I will seek instead to identify a limited set of generative social structures or mechanisms and to track the ways they interacted to provide ongoing policies. Even though each instance of colonial native policy was shaped by a different constellation of influences, the four primary mechanisms named above were always present and efficacious to varying degrees. (3)

Note that Steinmetz proceeds here in a clearly comparativist fashion (three cases with salient similarities and differences); and he proceeds with the language of causal mechanism in view.  The comparativist orientation implies a desire to identify causal differences across the cases that would account for the differences in outcomes in the cases.  He suggests later in the analysis that all six factors mentioned here are causally relevant; but that the general structural causes (5 and 6) do not account for the variation in the cases.   These structural factors perhaps account for the similarities rather than the differences across the cases. But Steinmetz emphasizes repeatedly that general theories of colonialism cannot account for the wide variation that is found across these three cases.  “The patterns of variation among these three colonies are as puzzling as is the sheer degree of heterogeneity” (19).

So what kind of account does Steinmetz offer for the four key mechanisms he cites?  Consider first factor (2) above, the idea that the specifics of colonial rule depended a great deal on the circumstances of the professional and ideological “field” within which colonial administrators were recruited and served.  (Here is a posting on Bourdieu’s concept of “field”; link.)  “Social fields are organized around differences — differences of perception and practice.  It is difficult to imagine what sorts of materials actors could use in their efforts to carve out hierarchies of cultural distinction if they were faced with cultural formations as flat and uniform as Saidian ‘Orientalism'” (45-46).  The idea here is that the particular intellectual and professional environment established certain points of difference around which participants competed. These dividing lines set the terms of professional competition, and prospective colonial administrators as well as functioning administrators needed to establish their program for governance around a distinctive package of these assumptions.

Was the colonial state characterized by common perceptions of distinction and stakes of conflict? German colonial administrators did in fact compete for a specific form of cultural distinction within the ambit of the colonial state, and this struggle guided each individual toward particular kinds of native policy.  … The colonial stage thus became an exaggerated version of imperial Germany’s three-way intraelite class struggle. (48, 49)

This mechanism is a fairly clear one; and it provides a promising basis for explaining some of the otherwise puzzling aspects of colonial rule and native policy.  It derives, fundamentally, from Bourdieu’s theories of social capital.  Consider an analogy with current military policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Suppose there are two large ideas of strategy in the air, counter-insurgency and state-building.  Suppose that each of these frameworks of thought has resonance with different groups of powerful political leaders within the government.  And suppose that senior military commanders are interested in establishing their credentials as effective strategists.  It makes sense to imagine that there may be a competition for choosing on-the-ground strategies and tactics that align with the grand strategy the theater commander thinks will further his long-range career success the best.

This mechanism is consistent with an agent-centered theory of explanation: actors (administrators or generals) are immersed in a policy environment in which conflicting ideas about success are debated; the actors seek to align their actions to the framework they judge to be most likely to prevail (and preserve their careers).  No one wants to be the last Curtis LeMay in Vietnam when the prevailing view back home is “winning hearts and minds.”  The explanation postulates a social fact — the prevalence of several intellectual frameworks about the other, several ethnographic discourses; and the individual’s immersion in these discourses permits him or her to act strategically in pursuing advantageous goals.

We can often begin to understand why one strand of precolonial discourse rather than another guided colonial practice once we know who was put in charge of a given colony. (54)

So this illustrates the way that factors (1) and (2) work in Steinmetz’s explanation.  What about (3)?  This falls in the category of what Steinmetz calls “symbolic and imaginary identifications” (55).  Here Steinmetz turns away from conscious calculation and jockeying on the part of the colonial administrator in the direction of a non-rational psychology. Steinmetz draws on psychoanalytic theory and the theories of Lacan here. But it remains an agent-centered analysis.  Steinmetz refers to elements of mentality as an explanation of the administrators’ behavior, and their possession of this mentality needs its own explanation.  But what proceeds from the assumption of this mentality is straightforward; it is a projection of behavior based on a theory of the mental framework of the actor.

The fourth factor in Steinmetz’s analysis turns to the states of agency of the colonized.  Here he refers to strategies of response by the subject people to the facts of colonial rule, ranging from cooperation to resistance.

Resistance is located on the opposite side from cooperation. Colonized peoples were able to modulate and revise native policies. By signing up as a native policeman one might be able to temper colonial abuses of power. More frontal forms of resistance could bring a regime of native policy to an abrupt halt and force the colonial state to seek a new approach. (66)

This aspect of the story too is highly compatible with a microfoundations approach; it is straightforward to see how social mobilization theory can be fleshed out in ways that make it an agent-centered approach.

Here is how Steinmetz sums up his account:

The colonial state, I have argued here, can best be understood as a kind of field, one that is structured around opposing principles and interests and around conflict over specific stakes.  Actors in the field of the colonial state competed to accumulate ethnographic capital.  This field’s internal heterogeneity and the fact that a field is “a space of possibilities” with an “immense elasticity” meant that colonial policy was never a smooth, continuous process but was prone to sudden shifts in direction. The relative autonomy of the colonial government from the metropolitan state and its independence from other fields in terms of its definition of symbolic capital meant that it was, in fact, a kind of state, even if political theorists have paid little attention to it. Just as it is impossible to generalize about the contents of ethnographic discourse or the policies of the colonial state,neither can one characaterize the “mind of the colonizer” in general terms, except to say that it was as complex and internally contradictory as the subjectivity of the colonized. (517-518)

It should also be noted that a great deal of Steinmetz’s account is not explanatory, but rather descriptive and narrative.  He provides detailed accounts of the history and behavior of the colonial regimes in these three settings, and much of the value of the book indeed derives from the research underlying these descriptive accounts.

So Steinmetz’s account seems to have several important characteristics.  First, it is interested in providing a contextualized explanation of differences in nominally similar outcomes (different instances of German colonial rule).  Second, it is interested in providing an account of the causal mechanisms that shaped each of the instances, in such a way as to account for their differences.  Third, the mechanisms that he highlights are largely agent-centered mechanisms.  Fourth, the account deliberately highlights the contingency of the developments it describes.  Individuals and particular institutions play a role, as well as historical occurrences that were themselves highly contingent.  And finally, there is a pervasive use of collective concepts like field, ideology, worldview, and ethnography that play a crucial causal role in the story.  These concepts identify a supra-individual factor.  But each of them can be provided with a microfoundational account.  So Steinmetz’s analysis here seems to be largely consistent with microfoundationalism.  It diverges from analytical sociology in one important respect, however: Steinmetz does not couch his explanatory goals in terms of the idea of deriving social outcomes from individual-level actions and relations.  Rather, it is for the reader to confirm that the mechanisms cited do in fact have appropriate microfoundations.

(Steinmetz discusses his theoretical approach to colonialism in his interview included in the “interviews” page. Here is an appreciative review of The Devil’s Handwritinglink.)

Social explanation and causal mechanisms

To explain a social outcome or regularity, we need to provide an account of why and how it came about; and this means providing a causal analysis in terms of which the explanandum appears as a result.

Having a causal theory of a realm requires having an ontology: what kinds of things exist in this realm, and how do they work? Along with others, I offer a social ontology grounded in the actions and relations of socially constituted actors, which I refer to as methodological localism (link). (This is also the ontology asserted by the programme of “analytical sociology”;  link.)

This entails, basically, that we need to understand all higher-level social entities and processes as being composed of the activities and thoughts of individual agents at a local level of social interaction; we need to be attentive to the pathways of aggregation through which these local-level activities aggregate to higher-level structures; and we need to pay attention to the iterative ways in which higher-level structures shape and influence individual agents.  Social outcomes are invariably constituted by and brought into being by socially constituted, socially situated individual actors (methodological localism). Both aspects of the view are important. By referring to “social constitution” we are invoking the fact that past social arrangements have created the social actor. By referring to “social situatedness” we invoke the idea that existing social practices and rules constrain and motivate the individual actor. So this view is not reductionist, in the sense of aiming to reduce social outcomes to pre-social individual activity.

We also want to refer to supra-individual actors — firms, agencies, organizations, social movements, states. The social sciences are radically incomplete without such constructs. But all such references are bound by a requirement of microfoundations: if we attribute intentionality to a firm, we need to be able to sketch out an account of how the individuals of the firm are led to act in ways that lead to the postulated decision-making and action (link).

So, then: what is involved in asserting that social circumstance A causally produces social circumstance B? There are, of course, numerous well developed answers to this question: statistical inference based on correlations of occurrences, conditional probabilities, and necessary-sufficient condition analysis. My view, however, is that there is a more basic meaning of causation: A caused B iff there is a sequence of causal mechanisms leading from A to B. This approach is especially suitable for the social realm because, on the one hand, there are few strong statistical regularities among social outcomes, and on the other, it is feasible to identify social mechanisms through a variety of social research methods — comparative analysis, process tracing, case studies, and the like.

The social mechanisms approach (and the scientific realism that lies behind it) goes back at least as early as the late 1980s. An early statement of the view was presented in my Varieties Of Social Explanation: An Introduction To The Philosophy Of Social Science in 1991.  Mario Bunge and Jon Elster took similar positions. The view took a large step forward, on the theory side, with the publication of Hedstrom and Swedberg’s Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (1998), and on the empirical research side with the publication of McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s Dynamics of Contention (2001). There are important differences; theorists within analytical sociology largely favor methodological individualism and mechanisms grounded in rational individuals, whereas Tilly and his colleagues favor “relational” mechanisms. But in each case the model of agent-centered explanations that either require microfoundations or are plainly compatible with such a requirement.  (Here is a recent post on causal mechanisms.)

Several social scientists have anticipated this approach through their own concrete analysis of aggregation phenomena.  A good illustration is Thomas Schelling.  His work presents a large number of examples of mundane social outcomes that he explains on the basis of simple individual-level choices and an aggregation mechanism (Micromotives and MacrobehaviorChoice and Consequence). Features of organized crime, traffic patterns, segregation, and dying seminars all come in for treatment.  Schelling demonstrates in concrete terms what sorts of things we can identify as “social mechanisms” and traces them back to the circumstances of action of individuals in social situations.

The framework of social mechanisms as a basis for social explanation raises an important question about the role and scope of generalizability that we expect from a social explanation. Briefly, the mechanisms identified here show a degree of generalizability; as McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly assert, social mechanisms can be expected to recur in other circumstances and times. But the event itself is one-of-a-kind. This is a familiar feature of Tilly’s way of thinking about contentious events as well: the American Civil War was a singular historical event. But a good explanation will invoke mechanisms that recur elsewhere. We shouldn’t expect to find general theories of civil wars; but our explanations of particular civil wars can invoke quasi-general theories of mid-level mechanisms of conflict and escalation. (Here is a recent posting on general and specific causal claims.)

Another important methodological question for this approach to social explanation is the issue of explaining general statistical patterns in social life.  What if we want to explain something more quantitative — say a gradually rising divorce rate or the finding that co-habitants before marriage have higher divorce rates than non-co-habitants? On the social mechanisms approach, we would want two things. First, we would like an agent-level mechanism that explains the statistic; and second, we would like to find a common cause if the phenomenon is similar in several countries.

Finally, the actor-based mechanisms approach invites an area of study which is now being referred to as “aggregation dynamics” (linklink).  We need to have theories and tools that permit us to aggregate different micro-level processes over time into meso- and macro-outcomes, taking into account the complexity of causal interactions in a dynamic process.  The tools of agent-based modeling are relevant here (link).

Microfoundationalism

detail: Lynn Cazabon photo

The philosophy of social science encompasses several important tasks, and key among them is to provide theories of social ontology and social explanation. What is the nature of social entities? What is needed in order to substantiate a claim of social causation? What constitutes an acceptable social explanation?

The concept of microfoundations is relevant to each of these domains. A microfoundation is:

a specification of the ways in which the properties and structure of a higher-level entity are produced by the activities and properties of lower-level entities.

In the case of the social sciences, this amounts to:

a specification of the ways that properties, structural features, and causal powers of a social entity are produced and reproduced by the actions and dispositions of socially situated individuals.

This concept is relevant to social ontology in this way. Social entities are understood to be compositional; they are assemblages constituted and maintained by the mentality and actions of individuals. So providing an account of the microfoundations of a structure or causal connection — say a paramilitary organization or of the causal connection between high interest rates and the incidence of alcohol abuse — is a specification of the composition of the social-level fact. It is a description of the agent-level relationships and patterns of behavior that cohere in such a way as to bring about the higher-level structure or causal relationship.

The concept of microfoundations is directly relevant to explanation. If we assert a causal or explanatory relation between one social entity or condition and another, we must be prepared to offer a credible sketch of the ways in which this influence is conveyed through the mentalities and actions of individuals.

Much turns, however, on what precisely we mean to require of a satisfactory explanation: a full specification of the microfoundations in every case, or a sketch of the way that a given social-level process might readily be embodied in individual-level activities. If we go with the first version, we are licensing a fair amount of autonomy for the social-level explanation; whereas if we go with the second version, we are tending towards a requirement of reductionism from higher to lower levels in every case. I am inclined to interpret the requirement in the first way; it doesn’t seem necessary to disaggregate every claim like “organizational deficiencies at the Bhopal chemical plant caused the devastating chemical spill” onto specific individual-level activities. We understand pretty well, in a generic way, what the microfoundations of organizations are, and it isn’t necessary to provide a detailed account in order to have a satisfactory explanation.

 

The ontological position associated with microfoundationalism falls in the general area of methodological individualism and reductionism, in that it insists on the compositional nature of the social. However, there is a recursive aspect of the theory that distinguishes it from strict reductionism. The individuals to which microfoundations are traced are not a-social; rather, their psychology, beliefs and motives are constituted and shaped by the social forces they and others constitute. So the microfoundational account of the workings of a paramilitary organization may well refer to the locally embodied effects of that organization on the current psychology of the members of the organization; and their behavior in turn reproduces the organization in the next iteration. This is why I prefer the idea of methodological localism over that of methodological individualism (link).

The theory of microfoundations is also very consistent with the idea of social mechanisms. When we ask about the microfoundations of a social process, we are asking about the mechanisms that exist at a lower level that create and maintain the social process.

 

One way of motivating the theory of microfoundations is to observe that it is a prescription against “magical thinking” in the social realm. There is no “social stuff” that has its own persistent causal and structural characteristics; rather, all social phenomena are constituted by patterns of behavior and thought of populations of individual human beings. And likewise, social events and structures do not have inherently social causal properties; rather, the causal properties of a social structure or event are constituted by the patterns of behavior and thought of the individuals who constitute them and nothing else.

The theory of supervenience is often invoked to express the idea that social entities and properties are constituted by individuals. (Jaegwon Kim is the primary creator of the theory of supervenience in the philosophy of mind; Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays.) This basic idea is expressed as:

No difference at level N without some difference at lower level K.

The advantage of the theory of supervenience is that it provides a way of recognizing the compositional nature of higher-level entities without presupposing explanatory reductionism from one level to the lower level.

The explicit idea of microfoundations appears to have been first developed in the domain of microeconomics; there it referred to the necessity of deriving macroeconomic phenomena from the premises of rational economic behavior (Weintraub, Microfoundations: The Compatibility of Microeconomics and Macroeconomics). (Here is an interesting article by van den Bergh and Gowdy on recent analysis of the microfoundations debate in economics.) Maarten Jansen describes the theory of microfoundations in economics in his entry in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law:

The quest to understand microfoundations is an effort to understand aggregate economic phenomena in terms of the behavior of individual economic entities and their interactions. These interactions can involve both market and non-market interactions. The quest for microfoundations grew out of the widely felt, but rarely explicitly stated, desire to stick to the position of methodological individualism …, and also out of the growing uneasiness among economists in the late 1950s and 1960s with the co-existence of two subdisciplines, namely microeconomics and macroeconomics, both aiming at explaining features of the economy as a whole. Methodological individualism, as explained in the entry on the topic, is the view according to which proper explanations in the social sciences are those that are grounded in individual motivations and their behavior.

The idea of microfoundations is now important in many areas of the social sciences, including especially sociology and political science. Particularly important were ideas formulated by James Coleman in Foundations of Social Theory. Coleman doesn’t use the term “microfoundations” explicitly in this work, but his analysis of the relationship between the macro and the micro seems to imply a requirement of providing microfoundations as a condition on good explanations in the social sciences. The Coleman boat (link) seems to be a graphical way of representing the microfoundations of a macro-level fact.

A second mode of explanation of the behavior of social systems entails examining processes internal to the system, involving its component parts, or units at a level below that of the system. The prototypical case is that in which the component parts are individuals who are members of the social system. In other cases the component parts may be institutions within the system or subgroups that are part of the system. In all cases the analysis can be seen as moving to a lower level than that of the system, explaining the behavior of the system by recourse to the behavior of its parts. This mode of explanation is not uniquely quantitative or uniquely qualitative, but may be either. … I call [this] the internal analysis of system behavior. (2)

Coleman’s view here is complex, though, and isn’t entirely unambiguous. Consider this qualification a few pages later, which refers unexpectedly to “emergent phenomena” and intermediate levels of explanatory mechanisms between the macro and the micro:

Those readers familiar with debates and discussions on methodological holism and methodological individualism will recognize that the position taken above on explanation is a variant of methodological individualism. But it is a special variant. No assumption is made that the explanation of systemic behavior consists of nothing more than individual actions and orientations, taken in aggregate. The interaction among individuals is seen to result in emergent phenomena at the system level, that is, phenomena that were neither intended nor predicted by the individuals. Furthermore, there is no implication that for a given purpose an explanation must be taken all the way to the individual level to be satisfactory. The criterion is instead pragmatic. (5)

Other more explicit advocates of the microfoundations principle are Jon Elster, John Roemer, Adam Przeworski, and other contributors to the theories of analytical Marxism (Analytical Marxism). Here is how I attempted to synthesize some of this thinking in 1994:

Marxist thinkers have argued that macro-explanations stand in need of microfoundations: detailed accounts of the pathways by which macro-level social patterns come about. These theorists have held that it is necessary to provide an account of the circumstsances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macro-explanations are to be adequate. Thus in order to explain the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we need to have an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped or controlled so as to produce this outcome. (“Microfoundations of Marxism,” reprinted in D. Little, Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation, 4)

As noted in a prior post, the idea of microfoundations is also a core constituent of the methodology of analytical sociology (Peter Hedström, Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology).

In short, a fairly wide range of social science research today embraces the general idea of providing microfoundations for macro-level assertions. And this seems to be a very reasonable requirement, given what we know about how social entities, processes, and forces are composed.

Marx an analytical sociologist?

 

In an earlier post I gave a brief sketch of the emerging field of analytical sociology, and summarized its foundations around three premises: microfoundations, rational social actors, and causal mechanisms.

Marx is often thought to be a “structuralist” thinker, highlighting large social processes and entities such as the mode of production, the economic structure, and social class (for example, by Althusser and

Balibar in Reading Capital). However, I argued in The Scientific Marx (1986) that a careful examination of Marx’s economic writings reveals something quite different. I argued, first, that Marx embraced the idea that social explanations require microfoundations.

Marxist social science commonly has advanced macro explanations of social phenomena in which the object of investigation is a large-scale feature of society and the explanans is a description of some other set of macro phenomena. Some Marxist social scientists have recently argued, however, that macro explanations stand in need of microfoundations: detailed accounts of the pathways by which macrolevel social patterns come about. These theorists have held that it is necessary to describe the circumstances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macroexplanations are to be adequate. Thus to explain the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we need an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped and controlled so as to produce the outcome. (127-28)

Consider now a second issue underlying the call for “microfoundations” for Marxian explanations: the gap between the interests of a group as a collective and the interests of the individuals who comprise the group. (John Roemer refers to this as the “aggregation gap.”) “Rational-action” explanations depend on identifying an individual’s interests and then explaining the person’s behavior as the rational attempt to best serve those interests. The model is often extended to account for collective behavior of groups as well…. However, Mancur Olson and others have made it plain … that it is not sufficient to refer to collective interests in order to explain individual behavior. (129-30)

In both cases the objection being advanced to macro-Marxism is grounded in a recognition that there are no supraindividual actors in a society. (131)

After examining several examples of Marx’s most important explanations, I conclude that his arguments conform to the requirements of the microfoundations principle. His most characteristic explanations proceed from reasoning about the actions of typical individuals within capitalist institutions to an effort to aggregate these individual choices up to the level of larger collective patterns.

Second, I argued that Marx’s explanations were almost always grounded in an analysis that highlighted rational individual decision-making. But Marx differed from the perspective we would now call “public choice theory” in that he gave much greater attention to the historically specific motives and values of the actor.  Marx highlighted what we might now call “political psychology” of the actor — the socially specific ideas, motivations, and ideologies that the actor acquired through ordinary experience of capitalism. So there is a developed “action theory” present in Marx’s writings.  It is a theory that gives prominence to means-end rationality.  And it gives attention to the social specificity of the actor as well.

Here is how I described Marx’s assumptions about the actors within capitalism in TSM:

Marx’s accounts depend on an examination of the circumstances of choice of rational individuals. Marx identifies a set of motivational factors and constraints on action for a hypothetical capitalist and then tries to determine the most rational strategies available to the capitalist in these circumstances of choice…. A second part of this model of explanation involves an attempt to determine the consequences for the system as a whole of the forms of activity attributed to the typical capitalist at the preceding stage of analysis. (141-42)

But Marx has a nuanced and socially specific conception of the actor:

Against both these positions — the nonsocial individualism of political economy and the uncritical holism of speculative philosophy — Marx puts forward an alternative position. On this account the socialized individual is the ultimate unit of analysis in social explanation. “Individuals producing in society — hence socially determined production — is of course the point of departure” (Grundrisse 83)…. On this account society is not a freestanding entity, and social relations exist only through the individuals who stand within them. At the same time, however, individuals exist only within particular sets of historically given social relations. Consequently, social explanations must begin with a concrete conception of the individual within specific social relations.” (150)

These assumptions about social actors conform fairly well to the assumptions incorporated into analytical sociology.

And third, I argued that Marx offered causal mechanism explanations based on an analysis of what I termed the “institutional logic” of a particular social setting. So various features of capitalism are explained as resulting from rational actors situated within a particular set of institutions. These accounts serve as descriptions of the social mechanisms through which capitalist dynamics take place.

Marx attempts to work out the institutional logic of these capitalist institutions. What distinctive features of organization and development are imposed on the capitalist economy by its defining structural and functional characteristics? What are the “laws of motion” of the mode of production defined by these conditions? We may call this an institutional-logic analysis of social regularities, and it is significantly different from the construction of theoretical explanations in natural science. Such an analysis is concerned with determining the results for social organization and development of an entrenched set of incentives and constraints on individual action. (34)

Marx’s interest in discovering and elaborating the social mechanisms that drive social processes is found within his theory of historical materialism as well.  In TSM I argue that Marx’s claims about causation between levels of the social and economic structures of various modes of production are best understood as “mechanisms” explanations.

In order to understand fully this view of the relation between the economic structure and noneconomic phenomena, it is necessary to describe the mechanisms through which the lower-level structures constrain or filter superstructural elements. The filtering may occur through a variety of mechanisms, both intended and unintended. (56)

This account of Marx’s implicit theory of social explanation — microfoundations, rationality, and mechanisms — reproduces Coleman’s boat (Foundations of Social Theory).  The institutions and structures of capitalism create a local environment of choice for individual capitalists and workers, and their behavior aggregates to a macro-outcome of interest (for example, the falling tendency in the rate of profit). This is a “logic of institutions” argument in a specific sense. The institutions (property relations) create an environment of choice in which actors pursue specific strategies, and these strategies aggregate to a certain kind of macro-level outcome. These are the “laws of motion” of the capitalist mode of production, in Marx’s terms. And it is a mechanisms-based explanation in a specific sense as well. Marx is deliberately seeking out the social mechanisms through which the institutional setting produces a set of macro-outcomes, through their influence on the behaviors of the actors. The Scientific Marx offers a handful examples of these aggregative explanations. The point here is that this logic conforms very well to the framework of thought associated with analytical sociology.

There is one additional point of convergence between the methods I identified in Marx’s writings in 1986 and the current doctrines of analytical sociology. I argued that the covering law model of explanation and the deductive-nomological model of justification did not work at all well in application to Marx’s reasoning. The reason? Because the covering law model assumes that explanatory warrant proceeds from laws and regularities, whereas the heart of Marx’s explanations rests upon the discovery of particular social processes and mechanisms.

Do Marx’s explanations conform to the subsumption theory? … There are statements of lawlike regularities in Marx’s explanations, but these statements are somewhat trivial…. The real weight of the argument lies elsewhere: in the particular details of the circumstances of choice in which capitalists find themselves, and in Marx’s reasoning from these circumstances to patterns of collective behavior. (152) [Or in other words, he seeks to uncover the social mechanisms of capitalism and their aggregative dynamics.]

The process of discovering an institutional logic is not merely one of working out the deductive consequences of the theory; it is rather discovering new aspects of the social process. These aspects are perhaps “implicit” in the original theory, but their discovery is a substantive one, not a mere deductive exercise. (153)

Here too there is a strong affinity between Marx’s theory of science (as I interpreted it in 1986, anyway) and the philosophy of social explanation developed within analytical sociology.

So it looks as though Marx’s analysis of capitalist society — at least as it is reconstructed in The Scientific Marx — falls squarely within what we would now call “analytical sociology” with a commitment to microfoundations, mechanisms, and socially constituted purposive actors. What a surprise!

Abbott on mechanisms

Peter Hedstrom and Richard Swedberg’s Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (1998) announced to the world the power of social mechanisms as a foundation for social explanations. It was based on a conference on this approach in Stockholm in 1996, and the volume includes contributions by outstanding authorities such as Thomas Schelling, Jon Elster, Aage Sorensen, and Arthur Stinchcombe (among others).

One person whom it does not include is Andrew Abbott. Abbott did indeed participate in the conference, but his contribution was not included in the volume when it appeared in 1998. The article did appear subsequently, however, in a special volume of Sociologica in 2007, with discussions by Delia Baldassarri, Gianluca Manzo, and Tommaso Vitale. (Here is a link to Abbott’s essay and to his reply to discussants.) And the whole debate is worth reading. Abbott’s piece is a serious challenge to the ontology of mechanisms. And each of the discussants in the Sociologica volume bring important criticisms and perspectives to the table.

Essentially Abbott takes issue with the mechanisms approach because it attempts to analyze the social world into fixed “atoms” of causal events (mechanisms and actors) rather than a more contextual ontology of relations and actions.

I shall consider the mechanisms movement from the viewpoint of a different theoretical tradition, one that focuses on the processual and relational character of social life and that traces its roots to pragmatism. (2)

By the relational view I mean the notion that the meaning of an action is comprehensible only when it is situated in social time and place. A fundamental assumption of the mechanism view as set out here is that the meaning of a certain activity is given in itself. By contrast, the relational view assumes that the meaning of an action arises from its relations to other actions – both temporally, as a successor and a forerunner in coherent sequences of social events, and structurally, as a vertex in a synchronic ensemble of actions. Beneath this lies a more profound assumption that actions, not actors, are the primitives of the social process. The substratum of social life is interaction, not biological individuals who act. (7)

Abbott agrees with the CM approach in its rejection of a positivist search for statistical regularities among social characteristics — what he refers to as the variables paradigm — but he isn’t persuaded by the ontology of mechanisms. He prefers actions to actors, and he prefers relationships linked to their contexts in time and place to portable mechanisms.

The most important part of Abbott’s article is his positive argument for the primacy of a relational approach and actions-in-context instead of unitary actors.  Much of this line of thought comes down to Abbott’s view that actors and agency are deeply socially constructed; so it doesn’t make sense to take the actor as a given who then deliberates about options.

Making interaction primitive makes it possible to give an account of the self.  By making the self be continuously recreated in the flow of interaction we bring it out of the realm of assumptions and into that of investigation.  At the same time, by making interaction primitive we allow for the endless interplay of cross-individual structural definitions of the flow of action, an interplay that is an evident fact in social life. (8)

For the relational account defines an act as a making of relations within a scene…. Social actors are cobbled together by actions that turn existing potential boundaries into actual ones. (9)

I am arguing the stronger point that the acting self is continuously remade in interaction and that the environment of possible endowments and contrasts–the environment of others and past experiences–provides the ground whence comes this remaking. (12)

Another central thrust of Abbott’s critique of the mechanism approach is that it is “reductionist” and depends on a rational-choice model of the actor. Essentially his line of argument is this: the mechanism approach requires microfoundations for macro-causal mechanisms; microfoundations presuppose rational actors; and therefore macro-facts are being reduced to facts about rational individuals. Each of these links is debatable, however, and in fact several of the discussants in the Sociologica volume question each of them. Essentially, many advocates of microfoundations (including me) insist on a richer theory of the actor than narrow economic rationality. And others — for example, Dave Elder-Vass — maintain that microfoundations don’t imply reductionism either. (He prefers the idea of supervenience; I prefer explanatory autonomy; link.)

Delia Baldassarri highlights this issue in her comment, when she talks about the strengths and weaknesses of methodological individualism:

This approach has been quite successful in explaining “macro-phenomena that are emergent effects of the interdependent but uncoordinated actions of many individuals” [Mayntz 2004, 250]. The same approach has been less effective, however, in accounting for dynamics of identity construction, interest formation, boundary definition and institutional change, and in general, for social processes where macro-level states cannot be considered as given. (2)

Gianluca Manzo’s comment is the most extensive of the three in the Sociologica volume.  His careful assessment leads him to conclude that Abbott overstates the incompatibility between “mechanisms” and “relations,” and overstates as well the degree to which the analytical sociology perspective is “reductionist”.  Manzo advocates for what he calls “complex methodological individualism”, and concludes that:

The “relational sociology” that Abbott defends is inconceivable without the “mechanismal sociology” (AS) he critiques.

One feature of Abbott’s article gives it its own particular relationality: he illustrates his meaning by describing a prolonged disagreement he had as a dean with the president of the University of Chicago over admissions recruitment strategies. His point, seemingly, is that the strategy chosen by the president presumes a rational-actor theory of college choice, and it further misunderstands the true priorities and considerations that motivate prospective UC students.

More important, we might phrase the difference by saying that the relational model is interested in how a student becomes a person who matriculates at the University of Chicago. (15)

The inference: if UC is to continue to recruit the edgy, intellectual and quirky undergraduates it has been famous for, it will need to have a more nuanced understanding of the whole process. Or in the context of mechanisms versus relations: it won’t do to think a marketing can pull the lever on a strategy (mechanism) and expect to get the desired result. Rather, we need a more contextualized and relational approach. There is no recipe of mechanisms — grounded, moreover, in a rational expectations theory — that will do the job. Instead, Abbott advises a relational, processual approach to college marketing: figure out the kinds of identities the desired segment of high school students are trying to make for themselves, and construct a series of experiences around that.

In many ways I find Abbott’s essay more original than several in the original Hedstrom-Swedberg volume. So it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t included. It could have influenced the subsequent discussions very fruitfully.

Readers will also be interested in a recent collection edited by Pierre Demeulenaere that serves as a valuable follow-on to the original Hedstrom-Swedberg volume, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms. It includes a piece by a German philosopher and sociologist whose work on this subject I admire, Michel Schmid, as well as contributions from Dan Sperber, Raymond Bouton, Jon Elster, Robert Sampson, and others. Schmid’s Die Logik mechanismischer Erklarungen (2006) isn’t available in English, which is unfortunate. The causal mechanisms approach has been picked up internationally, including an interesting book on the subject by the Italian sociologist Filippo Barbera (Meccanismi Sociali; Elementi di sociologia analitica; 2004).

 

Aggregation dynamics

The social world starts with social individuals. So how do we get more complex social outcomes out of the actions and thoughts of independent individuals? How do the actions and thoughts of individuals aggregate into larger social happenings? How did the various religious, political, and relational attitudes of rural Kenyans aggregate to widespread ethnic violence a few years ago? What sorts of conditions lead to interactions that bring about unexpected outcomes? And, of course, how do larger social happenings impinge upon individuals, leading to characteristic kinds of socialized behavior?

These are questions I’ve usually addressed from the other angle — the “dis-aggregation” angle. I’ve asked how large social entities and processes can be disaggregated into actions and relationships pertaining to socially situated individuals. This is what we’re aiming at when we ask for microfoundations for things like state power or the changing impact of Islam. Here, though, let’s look at the upward-facing processes.

Here are some examples of the kinds of happenings and situations that we might be interested in:

  • collective social behaviors: riots, uprisings, boycotts, protests, panics, runs on the bank
  • coordinated actions by differentiated but organized groups: design of a new model vehicle at General Motors, movement of a tank squadron through a battle zone, actions by squads of fire fighters in a large forest fire
  • shifts of valuations and attitudes: styles, slang, inter-ethnic attitudes, diffusion of religious beliefs, dissemination of rumors through a population
  • preservation of stable organizations and structures: maintenance of the rules governing shop-floor behavior in a factory, sustaining command authority within a military organization, keeping a sustainable level of parent involvement in a cooperative childcare center, keeping a reasonably high level of taxpayer compliance within a mass society

How do the reasonings, thoughts, and choices of socially situated individuals aggregate and link together in ways that constitute these higher-level phenomena?

Some social outcomes are essentially agglomerative. A riot sometimes occurs when a small group of people have a grievance and a provocation; a larger group share sympathy with the original rioters; others see the behavior and join for their own reasons; and in a few hours thousands of people are breaking windows, setting cars on fire, and blocking the streets.

Second, some outcomes are the result of strategic behavior by a number of individuals. Competition leads agents to tailor their actions in such a way as to take advantage of the expected behavior of others; cooperation leads individuals to attempt to coordinate their behavior so as to bring about an outcome that the group prefers. These are the kinds of aggregative processes that Thomas Schelling describes in Micromotives and Macrobehavior; and, of course, some of the outcomes of both competitive and cooperative behavior are paradoxical with respect to the interests and intentions of the individuals who take part in them.

Third, some outcomes come about because individuals have constituted themselves as collective agents; they have come to identify themselves as members of a group and they behave deliberately out of consideration for what other members in the group will do. Their behavior is oriented to the behavior and intentions of the others in the group. They specifically strive to coordinate their actions with others through a shared set of social goals, identities, and attitudes. Raimo Tuomela explores this perspective in The Philosophy of Sociality: The Shared Point of View.

Other outcomes are largely structured by imperatives (rules or commands) conveyed through delineated social relationships from a group of decision makers to a group of agents. This is the key subject matter of the study of organizations and institutions. The Midwest account manager for a national bank issues instructions to loan officers throughout the region to do this or that; communications are sent out, supervisors are instructed to observe compliance, and loan officers change their behavior. This process too works through the incentives and purposes of a set of dispersed agents; but in this case there is a substantial degree of top-down coordination that is secured through communication channels and a supervisory structure.

The dynamics of competition and cooperation are well understood; the ideas of a prisoners’ dilemma, tragedy of the commons, and race to the bottom capture some of the logic of independent individuals each seeking to maximize their own interests (Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior). But cooperation too has its logic; even when a group of individuals are seeking to find a common strategy to further their group interests, it is easy to spot the organizational obstacles that stand in the way: lack of consensus, imperfect communication, etc. These are aggregation dynamics that derive from the logic of individual agency.

And the dynamics of organizations and systems of rules likewise have some obvious characteristics. Costs of enforcement mean that an institution’s rules are only imperfectly enforced. Conflicts of interests among powerful actors lead to inefficient behavior within the organization (e.g. ministry of steel and ministry of railroads). Well known organizational shortfalls like the principal-agent problem, imperfect and costly communications transmission, and costly information all lead organizations to fail in somewhat predictable ways. Robert Bates (Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies) and Charles Perrow (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk TechnologiesThe Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters) each capture some of the imperfections of organizations in their works. These are aggregation dynamics that derive from more structural features of systems of rules, roles, and actors.

Let’s look at an example of an aggregate-level phenomenon a bit more closely. Take style change over space and time. There are several different types of actors: street-level people who wear clothes with some degree of intentionality (want to look cool); street-level innovators (the first person to wear droopy jeans); clothing designers who want to influence the market for clothes through innovations that will be adopted by the public; “cool” finders who are looking for emerging innovations in hot places; marketers who specifically design strategies for proliferating new designs at Banana Republic or Abercrombie and Fitch. In this space of actors, consumers, and creators it sometimes happens that a new fashion emerges and quickly spreads to a larger population; how does this occur? What are the mechanisms of diffusion and adoption that lead to the success of a new look in denim jackets deriving ultimately from Seattle skateboarder culture? Stan Lieberson looks at some of these surprising dynamics in A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change.

I won’t try to catalogue here all the pathways through which individual actors aggregate into larger social happenings. But it seems clear that several factors are key to any such discussion: communication channels, organizations, and social networks.

Aggregation dynamics

The social world starts with social individuals.  But how do we get more complex social outcomes out of the actions and thoughts of independent individuals?  How do the actions and thoughts of individuals aggregate into larger social happenings?  What sorts of conditions lead to interactions that bring about unexpected outcomes?  And, of course, how do larger social happenings impinge upon individuals, leading to characteristic kinds of socialized behavior?

These are questions I’ve usually addressed from the other angle — the “dis-aggregation” angle.  I’ve asked how large social entities and processes can be disaggregated into actions and relationships pertaining to socially situated individuals.  This is what we’re aiming at when we ask for microfoundations for things like state power or the changing impact of Islam.

We need to get more specific if we want to clarify these questions.  Here are some examples of the kinds of happenings and situations that we are interested in:

  • collective social behaviors: riots, uprisings, boycotts, protests, panics, runs on the bank
  • coordinated actions by differentiated but organized groups: design of a new model vehicle at General Motors, movement of a tank squadron through a battle zone, actions by squads of fire fighters in a large forest fire
  • shifts of valuations and attitudes: styles, slang, inter-ethnic attitudes, diffusion of religious beliefs, dissemination of rumors through a population
  • preservation of stable organizations and structures: maintenance of the rules governing shop-floor behavior in a factory, sustaining command authority within a military organization, keeping a sustainable level of parent involvement in a cooperative childcare center, keeping a reasonably high level of taxpayer compliance within a mass society

How do the reasonings, thoughts, and choices of socially situated individuals aggregate and link together in ways that constitute these higher-level phenomena?

Some social outcomes are essentially agglomerative.  A riot occurs when a small group of people have a grievance and a provocation; a larger group share sympathy with the original rioters; others see the behavior and join for their own reasons; and in a few hours thousands of people are breaking windows, setting cars on fire, and blocking the streets.

Second, some outcomes are the result of strategic behavior by a number of individuals.  Competition leads agents to tailor their actions in such a way as to take advantage of the expected behavior of others; cooperation leads individuals to attempt to coordinate their behavior so as to bring about an outcome that the group prefers.  These are the kinds of aggregative processes that Thomas Schelling describes in Micromotives and Macrobehavior; and, of course, some of the outcomes of both competitive and cooperative behavior are paradoxical with respect to the interests and intentions of the individuals who take part in them.

Third, some outcomes come about because individuals have constituted themselves as collective agents; they have come to identify themselves as members of a group and they behave deliberately out of consideration for what other members in the group will do.  Their behavior is oriented to the behavior and intentions of the others in the group.  They specifically strive to coordinate their actions with others through a shared set of social goals, identities, and attitudes.

Other outcomes are largely structured by imperatives (rules or commands) conveyed through delineated social relationships from a group of decision makers to a group of agents.  This is the key subject matter of the study of organizations and institutions.  The Midwest account manager for a national bank issues instructions to loan officers throughout the region to do this or that; communications are sent out, supervisors are instructed to observe compliance, and loan officers change their behavior.  This process too works through the incentives and purposes of a set of dispersed agents; but in this case there is a substantial degree of top-down coordination that is secured through communication channels and a supervisory structure.

The dynamics of competition and cooperation are well understood; the ideas of a prisoners’ dilemma, tragedy of the commons, and race to the bottom capture some of the logic of independent individuals each seeking to maximize their own interests.  But cooperation too has its logic; even when a group of individuals are seeking to find a common strategy to further their group interests, it is easy to spot the organizational obstacles that stand in the way: lack of consensus, imperfect communication, etc.  These are aggregation dynamics that derive from the logic of individual agency.

And the dynamics of organizations and systems of rules likewise have some obvious characteristics.  Costs of enforcement mean that an institution’s rules are only imperfectly enforced.  Conflicts of interests among powerful actors lead to inefficient behavior within the organization (e.g. ministry of steel and ministry of railroads).  Well known organizational shortfalls like the principal-agent problem, imperfect and costly communications transmission, and costly information all lead organizations to fail in somewhat predictable ways. Robert Bates and Charles Perrow each capture some of the imperfections of organizations in their works.  These are aggregation dynamics that derive from more structural features of systems of rules, roles, and actors.

Let’s look at a few aggregate-level phenomena a bit more closely.  Take style change over space and time.  There are several different types of actors: street-level people who wear clothes with some degree of intentionality (want to look cool); street-level innovators (the first person to wear droopy jeans); clothing designers who want to influence the market for clothes through innovations that will be adopted by the public; “cool” finders who are looking for emerging innovations in hot places; marketers who specifically design strategies for proliferating new designs at Banana Republic or Abercrombie and Fitch.  In this space of actors, consumers, and creators it sometimes happens that a new fashion emerges and quickly spreads to a larger population; how does this occur? What are the mechanisms of diffusion and adoption that lead to the success of a new look in denim jackets deriving ultimately from Seattle skateboarder culture?

Social networks as aggregators

We think of social phenomena as “relational” in some important respect. Individuals contribute to social outcomes through structured and dynamic relationships with other individuals. So outcomes are not just heaps of aggregated individual behavior; rather, they are the filigreed result of interlinked, coordinated, competitive and sometimes unintended actions of people who have intentional and structural relationships to each other. And we think of these relationships, often, in terms of the metaphors and analytics of social “networks.” So it is worthwhile giving some thought to how the machinery of social network theory can help us in better understanding the ways that social processes unfold. Here is a nice passage from Mario Diani’s introduction to Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.

It is difficult to grasp the nature of social movements. They cannot be reduced to specific insurrections or revolts, but rather resemble strings of more or less connected events, scattered across time and space; they cannot be identified with any specific organization either, rather they consist of groups of organizations, with various levels of formalization, linked in patterns of interaction which run from the fairly centralized to the totally decentralized, from the cooperative to the explicitly hostile. Persons promoting and/or supporting their actions do so not as atomized individuals, possibly with similar values or social traits, but as actors linked to each other through complex webs of exchanges, either direct or mediated. Social movements are in other words, complex and highly heterogeneous network structures. (1)

This passage emphasizes quite a few themes that have been important throughout UnderstandingSociety — the heterogeneity of social phenomena, the difficulty of formulating a clear understanding of social ontology, and the challenge of representing the processes of aggregation through which individual social actions contribute to mid- and large-scale social outcomes.

So how do the analytical resources of network theory contribute to a better understanding of the ways that actions aggregate into outcomes?  Diani emphasizes several ways in which network analysis has contributed to the study of contentious politics.

Network analysis as it is best known developed with reference to a ‘realist’ view of social structure as networks which linked together concrete actors through specific ties, identifiable and measureable through reliable empirical instruments.  This view represented an alternative to both views of social structures as macro fores largely independent from the control of the specific actors associated with them …., and views of structure as aggregates of the individual actors sharing determinate specific traits (5).

So if we take it as a plain fact about the social world that individuals have a range of meaningful and material relationships with other individuals, both proximate and distant, then it is plainly important to understand the effects that those relationships have on their consciousness and behavior.  These causal relationships are likely to extend in both directions — from the network to the actor, and from the actor back into the network.

What kinds of social relationships are most relevant to understanding social processes like contentious movements?  Particularly important are “personal ties linking prospective participants to current activists or dense counter-cultural networks affecting rates of mobilization in specific areas” (3).  Diani mentions “personal friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbours; … people who share with prospective participants in some kind of collective engagement, such as previous or current participation in other movement activities, political or social organizations, and public bodies” (7).  To this list we might add membership and interaction within the kinds of civic and communal organizations that Robert Putnam emphasizes in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Here is the key point: different people find themselves in very different networks of social connections, and these relationships contribute to their social and political consciousness in diverse ways.  If we are interested in the spread of militant civil rights activism, as Doug McAdam is in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, or in the spread of fascist activism and mobilization in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, as Michael Mann is in Fascists, it is highly relevant to discover the relationships and organizations through which individuals come into contact with each other and with the ideas of the nascent movements.  Likewise, if we are interested in the proliferation of support for the Deacons of Defense in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, as Lance Hill is in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, then it is important to identify the personal and organizational linkages through which ordinary people became aware of this response to white supremacy and violence.  Communication of ideas and political emotions requires a mechanism connecting the “signallers” and those to whom the messages eventually percolate, and this is not a depersonalized, homogeneous process.

Recruitment and mobilization is one aspect of contentious politics where social networks are plainly important.  Relationships in the workplace, the neighborhood, or the church or mosque are a likely location for the diffusion of a range of socially relevant material — news, gossip, indignation, shared views about politics.  And these relationships are a potential vector for the recruitment of followers and activists for a range of new political ideas — from civil rights to Tea Party to fascism.

Identifying coalitions of collective actors is another area of current research.  Once a topic has gained some degree of visibility and salience, it is likely enough that multiple groups will begin to focus on it.  Anti-tax activism is a good example — dozens of “citizen-based” organizations emerged in California in the 1950s and 1960s with the overall goal of limiting property and income taxes in the state, and it is useful to track the emerging relationships that developed among these organizations and their activists.

Diani also highlights the role that concrete social networks play in “framing and tactical adaptation of action repertoires” (4).  Framing has to do with the ways that issues are understood by the participants; so this topic unavoidably has to do with culture and social interpretation.  But the ways in which cultural frames are conveyed to people through a population are material processes that can be studied empirically.  And social networks play a key role in these processes.  As people interact with their friends and associates, they develop their political and social representations of the society around them.  These interactions are the direct embodiment of their social networks.  Diani singles out “communitarian and subculture networks” for particular attention: “communitarian ties operate at a minimum to strengthen the identity and solidarity among movement activists and sympathizers. At the same time, though, they provide the specific locus of social conflict in those cases where the challenge is eminently on the symbolic side and where, in other words, the definition of identities and the preservation of opportunities for the enactment of alternative lifestyles are mainly at stake” (9).  These features of identity-based mobilization, through networks of like-minded individuals, are important in Michael Mann’s analysis of the rise of fascism in Fascists as well:

The fascist core consisted everywhere of two successive generations of young men, coming of age between WorldWar I and the late 1930s. Their youth and idealism meant that fascist values were proclaimed as being distinctively “modern” and “moral.” They were especially transmitted through two institutions socializing young men: secondary and higher education, encouraging notions of moral progress, and the armed forces, encouraging militarism. Since the appeal was mainly to young men, it was also distinctly macho, encouraging an ethos of braggart, semi-disciplined violence, in peacetime encouraging militarism to mutate into paramilitarism. The character of fascism was set by young men socialized in institutions favorable to moralizing violence and eventually to murder. Yet the similarity of values between paramilitarism and militarism always gave fascism a capacity to appeal to armed forces themselves, not to the extent of inducing military rebellions but to the extent of generating sympathy there that at its most extreme could immobilize the army. (26)

“Fascists” were not fully formed at the moment they entered the movement. People may formally sign up for a movement and yet possess only a rudimentary knowledge of it – sympathy for a few slogans, respect for a charismatic F¨uhrer or Duce, or simply following friends who have joined. Most recruits joined the movement young, unmarried, unformed, with little adult civilian experience. On them, fascist parties and paramilitaries were especially powerful socialization agencies. These movements were proudly elitist and authoritarian, enshrining a pronounced hierarchy of rank and an extreme cult of the leader. Orders were to be obeyed, discipline to be imposed. Above all, they imposed a requirement of activism. Thus militants experienced intense emotional comradeship. Where the movement was proscribed, clandestinity tightened it. Many activists lost their jobs or went into prison or exile. Though this deterred many of the more fainthearted, among those remaining active such constraints further tightened the movement. (28)

The social processes that Mann describes here have to do with all three aspects — recruitment, mobilization, and framing; and they depend on the networks of relationships through which the core fascist values and worldviews were transmitted to new recruits.  Institutions were key in this transmission — the military, the workplace, the youth organization — and a large part of their influence was their ability to create a significant cohort of young men with a specific set of set of social relationships.

The lens of social networks, in short, seems to be a very powerful tool for understanding the processes of aggregation — upward, downward, and lateral — through which ideas, grievances, and actors come together into major social upheavals and movements.

What is perhaps more difficult to see, though, is how to engage in empirical research on the concrete networks of social relationships that have important effects on outcomes we care about.  As the United States moved towards civil war in 1860 and 1861, there were hundreds or thousands of individuals in the U.S. Army officer corps who had antecedently mixed loyalties — Southern birth, family still residing in the South, but a tradition of education and service within the U.S. Army.  So what accounts for the choices that were made by various officers when they had to decide — North or South? It is intuitively plausible that each officer’s concrete social network played an important role in his decision — appeals from family and friends, business relationships in Virginia, long-standing relationships with senior Northern officers, an education and cohort at West Point.  But it is not entirely clear how to turn this plausible view into a feasible research plan.

This is one reason why the Diani volume is such a worthwhile contribution.  Most of the contributors focus their work on specific empirical problems in the field of social contention.  Maryjane Osa looks at activist networks in the Polish People’s Republic; Christopher Ansell looks at community activism in the San Francisco Bay environmental movement; Jeff Broadbent looks at social networks in the Japanese environmental movement; and Chuck Tilly and Lesley Wood look at networks in contentious episodes in British history around 1828.  These are concrete, empirical-historical efforts to take the guiding ideas of network analysis and discover some substantive insights into the specific ways that a variety of protest movements unfolded.  And they give a better understanding of the contribution that social network analysis can offer to concrete historical research.

Mechanisms of contention reconsidered

Social contention theorists Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly created a great deal of interest in the “mechanisms” approach to social explanation with the publication of their Dynamics of Contention in 2001.  The book advocated for several important new angles of approach to the problem of analyzing and explaining social contention: to disaggregate the object of analysis from macro-events like “civil war,” “revolution,” “rebellion,” or “ethnic violence” into the component social processes that recur in various instances of social contention; and to analyze these components as “causal mechanisms.”  Here is how they define contentious politics:

By contentious politics we mean: episodic, public, collective interaction among makers of claims and their objects when (a) at least one government is a claimant, an object of claims, or a party to the claims and (b) the claims would, if realized, affect the interests of at least one of the claimants.  Roughly translated, the definition refers to collective political struggle. (5)

Here is the way they characterize the distinctive nature of the analysis offered in their new work:

This book identifies similarities and differences, pathways and trajectories across a wide range of contentious politics — not only revolutions, but also strike waves, wars, social movements, ethnic mobilizations, democratization, and nationalism. (9)

And here is how they want to make systematic, explanatory sense of the heterogeneous examples of social contention that the world presents: to identify and investigate some common social mechanisms that work in roughly similar ways across numerous different instances of social contention.

Social processes, in our view, consist of sequences and combinations of causal mechanisms.  To explain contentious politics is to identify its recurrent causal mechanisms, the ways they combine, in what sequences they recur, and why different combinations and sequences, starting from different initial conditions, produce varying effects on the large scale….  Instead of seeking to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for mobilization, action, or certain trajectories, we search out recurrent causal mechanisms and regularities in their concatenation. (13)

They offer these definitions of the key analytical terms:

Mechanisms are a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.

Processes are regular sequences of such mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements.

Episodes are continuous streams of contention including collective claims making that bears on other parties’ interests. (24)

They distinguish among environmental mechanisms (“externally generated influences on conditions affecting social life”), cognitive mechanisms (“operate through alterations individual and collective perception”), and relational mechanisms (“alter connections among people, groups, and interpersonal networks”) (25-26).  And they offer a few examples of mechanisms: mobilization mechanisms, political identity formation mechanisms, and aggregation mechanisms.

The approach can be summarized in these terms:

Seen as wholes, the French Revolution, the American civil rights movement, and Italian contention look quite different from each other. … Yet when we take apart the three histories, we find a number of common mechanisms that moved the conflicts along and transformed them: creation of new actors and identities through the very process of contention; brokerage by activists who connected previously insulated local clumps of aggrieved people; competition among contenders that led to factional divisions and re-alignments, and much more.  These mechanisms concatenated into more complex processes such as radicalization and polarization of conflict; formation of new balances of power; and re-alignments of the polity along new lines. (32-33)

This is roughly the conception of social ontology and explanation that was put forward in 2001, and it was a powerful challenge to a more positivistic methodology that insisted on looking for general laws of contention and uniform regularities governing things like revolutions and civil wars.

By 2007, however, Tarrow and Tilly found it necessary to reformulate their views to some degree; and this re-thinking resulted in Contentious Politics.  So what changed between the theory offered in 2001 and that restated in 2007?  The answer is, surprisingly little at the level of concept and method.

Tilly and Tarrow refer to three main lines of criticism of Dynamics of Contention to which they felt a need to respond:

Although that book stirred up a lively scholarly discussion, even specialists who were sympathetic to our approach made three justified complaints about it.  First, it pointed to mechanisms and processes by the dozen without defining and documenting them carefully, much less showing exactly how they worked.  Second, it remained unclear about the methods and evidence students and scholars could use to check out its explanations.  Third, instead of making a straightforward presentation of its teachings, it reveled in complications, asides, and illustrations. (xi)

What did not change between the two formulations was the conceptual foundation.  The key concepts of contentious politics, mechanisms, processes, and episodes are essentially the same in the 2007 book as in 2001.

Contentious politics involves interactions in which actors make claims bearing on someone else’s interests, leading to coordinated efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs, in which governments are involved as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties.  Contentious politics thus brings together three familiar features of social life: contention, collective action, and politics. (4)

Further, they analyze contention in the same basic terms in 2007 as in 2001:

For explanation, we need additional concepts.  This chapter supplies four of them: the events and episodes of streams of contention and the mechanisms and processes that constitute them.

And their definitions of mechanisms and processes are unchanged:

By mechanisms, we mean a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.  Mechanisms compound into processes.  By processes, we mean regular combinations and sequences of mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements. (29)

One goal of the 2007 book is to simplify the discussion of mechanisms.  The authors highlight three mechanisms as being particularly central to episodes of contention:

  • Brokerage: production of a new connection between previously unconnected sites
  • Diffusion: spread of a form of contention, an issue, or a way of framing it from one site to another
  • Coordinated action: two or more actors’ engagement in mutual signaling and parallel making of claims on the same object (31)

Other mechanisms that are discussed include social appropriation, boundary activation, certification, and identity shift (34).  And their key examples of processes are mobilization and de-mobilization — each of which consists of a series of component mechanisms.

One difference between the two versions of the theory is more substantive.  In 2007 Tarrow and Tilly give greater priority to the performative nature of contentious politics: contentious performances and repertoires have greater prominence in the story offered in 2007 than in the analysis of episodes provided in 2001.  This is not a new element, since Tilly himself made extensive use of the ideas of performance and repertoire in his earlier analyses of French contentious politics; but the theme is given more prominence in 2007 than it was in 2001.

Overall, it seems reasonable to say that Contentious Politics expresses the same conceptual framework for researching and understanding contention as that found in Dynamics of Contention.  There is no fundamental break between the two works.  What has changed is more a matter of pedagogy and presentation.  The authors have sought to provide a more coherent and orderly presentation of the conceptual framework that they are presenting; and they have sought to provide an orderly and systematic analysis of the cases, in order to identify the mechanisms that recur across episodes.

Where additional work is still needed is at the level of conceptualization of causal mechanisms.  There is now a large body of discussion and debate about how to think about social causal mechanisms, and many observers are persuaded that the move to mechanisms is a very good way of getting a better grip on social explanation and analysis.  But how to define a social mechanism is still obscure.  The definition that MTT offer does not really seem satisfactory — “a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.”  A mechanism is not an event (or a class of events); rather, it is a nexus between a cause and an effect; it is the pathway through which the cause brings about the effect.  It is a materially embodied set of causal powers and their effects.  But the specific formulation provided by MTT doesn’t succeed in capturing any of these root ideas.

Various philosophers have attempted to specify more clearly the notion of a causal mechanism (Jon Elster, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences; Hedstrom and Swedberg, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, my own Varieties Of Social Explanation: An Introduction To The Philosophy Of Social Science). We can give good examples of what we mean by a causal mechanism.  But to date, it seems that we have not yet been able to come up with a fully satisfactory definition of a causal mechanism.  (Here is a short conference paper by Tilly in 2007 that takes a different approach by linking the concept to Robert Merton’s work; link.)

So the disaggregative approach that MTT advocate is a crucially important breakthrough in the study of complex social phenomena, and it seems convincing that it is “mechanisms” that disaggregation should lay bare.  Moreover, the idea of mechanisms aggregating to processes and constituting episodes is an intuitively compelling notion of how complex social phenomena are constituted.  These are genuinely important new ways of conceptualizing the complex social reality of contention and the task of providing descriptions and explanations of complex social episodes.  Contentious Politics is a very good presentation of these fundamental ideas.  What we don’t yet have, however, is a fully convincing and fertile conception of the root idea, the notion of a causal mechanism.

(See other postings under the thread of causal mechanism for other discussions of the topic.)

What exists in the social realm?

What sorts of social things exist?  Does the “proletariat” exist as a social entity? There are certainly workers; but is there a “working class”? What is needed in order to attribute existence to a social agglomeration?

We might want to say that things exist when they have enough persistence over time to admit of re-identification and study from one time to another.  Persistence involves some degree of stability in a core set of properties.  A cloud shaped like a cat has a set of visible characteristics at a given moment; but these characteristics disappear quickly, and this collection of water droplets quickly morphs into a different collection in a short time.  So we are inclined not to call the cat-shaped cloud an entity.  On the other hand, “the Black Forest” exists because we can locate its approximate boundaries and composition over several centuries.  The forest is an agglomeration of trees in a geographical space; but we might reasonably judge that the forest has properties that we can investigate that are not simply properties of individual trees (density and canopy temperature, for example).  The forest undergoes change over time; the mix of types of trees may shift from one decade to another, the density of plants changes, and the human uses of forest products change.  And we can ask questions like: “How has the ecology of the Black Forest changed in the twentieth century?”  So it seems reasonable enough that we can refer to the forest as a geographical or ecological entity.

We can also classify individual forests into types of forests: temperate rain forest, tropical rain forest, coniferous forest, etc.  (Here is a 26-fold classification of forests by UNEP-WCMC; the map below represents the global distribution of these types of forests.)  And we can ask ecological questions about the properties and processes that are characteristic of the various types of forests.

So what characteristics should a putative social entity possess in order to fall within the working ontology of the social sciences?  Here are a few possible candidate ontological features that might be associated with thing-hood in the social realm:

  • persistence of basic characteristics over time — spatio-temporal continuity and social analogs such as nucleated population with shared norms and identities
  • an internal structural-functional organization
  • some sort of regulative social process that maintains the thing’s identity over time, either internal or external 
  • social cohesion among the individuals who constitute the entity deriving from their social orientation to the entity (labor union, religious community, ethnic group)
  • an account of the particular material-social mechanisms through which the identity and persistence of the entity are maintained

According to these sorts of criteria, we might say that social things like these examples exist:

  • United Auto Workers
  • General Motors corporation
  • First Presbyterian Church of Dubuque
  • Missouri Synod
  • Kylie Minogue Facebook fan club 
  • 18th Street gang of Los Angeles
  • Michigan Legislature
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • University of Wisconsin
  • apprentice system for electrical workers
  • social practice of Islamic charity

Here is a slightly more abstract formulation.  We might say that these kinds of social entities exist: organizations, both formal and informal; networks of individuals oriented to each other and/or a social goal; social groups unified by features of consciousness or existential circumstance; bureaucracies of the state; enduring social practices; institutions possessing internal organization, rules, and purposes.

Social entities are composed of socially constituted individuals.  So the sinews of composition are important.  We can recognize a wide range of ways in which individuals are composed into larger social entities: agglomeration, adherence, mutual recognition, coercion, contractual relationships, marketing, recruitment, incentive systems, …  This is one place where “assemblage” theory seems to be useful (Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity.)

Part of the confusion in this topic is the distinction between things and kinds of things. We might agree that the Chicago Police Department exists as a social entity.  But we may remain uncertain as to whether “police departments” or “state coercive apparatuses” exist as higher-order categories of social things. And perhaps this is a confusion; perhaps the issue of existence applies only to individual entities, not kinds or classes of entities. On this approach, we would stipulate the minimum characteristics of existence we would want to require of individual social entities and then be “nominalistic” about the higher-level categories or concepts into which we classify these singular individuals.

In considering the ontology of the social world it is important to be attentive to the fallacy of reification: the error of thinking that the fact that we can formulate an abstract noun (proletariat, fascism) allows us to infer that it exists as a persistent, recurring social entity.  So when we identify a given social entity as an X, we need to regard it as an open question, “What do X’s have in common?”  We can avoid the fallacy of reification by focusing on the importance of providing microfoundations for the enduring characteristics of social entities.  It is the underlying composition of the entity rather than its location within a classificatory system that provides an explanatory foundation for the behavior of the entity.

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